A widowed mother during the Tigray war taught me a lesson in loving your neighbor

Estimated read time 4 min read

The start of Tigray war in November 2020 happened somewhat as an overnight surprise. People often imagine that such situations can result in people caring only for themselves and disregarding the well being of others but I what I experienced was a community coming together. Jesus tells us that there are two main parts to his message, love God and love your neighbor.

For a decade I had been working in Ethiopia as an academic neurosurgeon and most recently had been at Mekelle University in the Tigray state for almost 6 years. During that time I taught medical students, treated neurosurgical patients, and created fellowship and residency training in neurosurgery. I lived close to the main teaching hospital, Ayder Comprehensive Specialized Hospital, such that I was able to often walk a short distance to work everyday.

Tigrayans have an ancient culture of hospitality that can also be found most of the time in the Middle East. Whether they are Ethiopian Orthodox, Catholic, or Muslim this is inherent in their daily living. As such I become acquainted with many of the local people in the community whether I was drinking tea in their shops, seeing them or their family as patients, or buying basic household necessities. On special occasions and religious holidays they put grass on the floor when they make coffee in a manner reminiscent of the welcoming of Jesus to Jerusalem one reads about in the Bible.

The night before the war started in November 2020 I went to bed expecting another normal day in the morning. I woke up in the morning to find the city in chaos. Very quickly we were receiving many causalities at the hospital which occupied almost every minute of my time. At the same time all the banks where suddenly closed, internet, and phone service was cut. We also lost water service which normally ran a few days a week which we stored in local tanks above our homes.

The acute shortages of necessary items for daily living combined with closure of the banks meant that cash became scarce. I had no stash of cash or anything else in my rental house. I had to provide for not only myself but my house maid and her daughter who lived with me.

The Tigrayans have a strong history of neighborhood cooperation in the face of disaster or conflict. Some went to get firewood and make charcoal, others used horse drawn carriages to collect water, few tried to raise a few chickens on their roofs. But to keep things going there had to be some currency.

Down the street from me was a widowed middle aged woman with her children and elderly mother whose only source of income of was a small shop selling food stuffs and household items. I would frequently buy a few vegetables, salt, sugar or other items there on the way home from the hospital a few times a week before the war.

A few days after the onset of the war the couple of hundred birr I had in my pocket was gone. Which was equal to just a few dollars. There was a knock on my door and the owner of the roadside shop was there when I opened the door. I had not discussed my situation with anyone but she said she knew I needed some cash to get necessities and offered to help.

A part of me wanted to refuse but then I had my house maid and her daughter to think about not just myself. The shop owner handed me 2000 birr. She also said that while her shop was running out of supplies I could “borrow” what we needed to survive and pay her later.

For some months we borrowed significant amounts of basic materials. Additionally folks showed up with water and food accepting minimal payment. Meanwhile I continued to do what we could to take care of medical needs of civilians and combatants regardless of who they were at the hospital often without adequate supplies.

Before I left some two month’s later I thanked the shop owner. When I had some money given by the University she refused a payback. She reminds me of the story Jesus tells of the “Widow’s mite” who though she had little she gave what she had for the greater good. She and other Tigrayans taught me what loving your neighbor means during a threatening time of war time deprivation.

Professor Tony Magana https://myfindinggrace.com

Dr. Tony Magana is Professor Emeritus in Neurosurgery who spent many years doing international teaching and research including 10 years in Ethiopia. Over the past 15 years he concomitantly intensified his Christian faith through study and worship through the Episcopal Church. He grew up in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. Attended Texas A&M University, Harvard Medical School, and trained at the University of Miami. Additionally he took the University of South Education for Ministry as well as attending the Southeast Florida Episcopal Diocesan School for Christian Studies.
Professor Tony Magana, a seasoned neurosurgeon, has not only dedicated his life to medical practice but also embarked on a profound spiritual journey. Over the past 15 years, he has deepened his Christian faith through study and worship within the Episcopal Church. His experiences span international teaching, research, and a decade of service in Ethiopia
Dr. Tony Magana’s writings blend faith, compassion, and wisdom, inviting readers to explore the intersection of spirituality and the human experience. His journey serves as an inspiration for those seeking deeper connections with faith and humanity.

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